effective narration 101: narrative omniscience, part one

Our series on effective narration has returned! If you’re interested in taking a look at the earlier entries, I’ve collected all of the posts on effective narration in one spot for easy reference. Here’s a list of the earlier posts, if you’d like to start at the beginning:

  1. First-Person Narration
  2. Second-Person Narration
  3. Third-Person Narration, Part One
  4. Third-Person Narration, Part Two
  5. Narrative Characterization 
  6. Narrative Orientation in Time

This week, we’re going to start taking a look at narrative omniscience. Like perspective, narrative omniscience is one of the more complicated aspects of narration, and I’m hoping to cover the content over the next couple of weeks. Today, I want to address the general considerations so we will have a shared vocabulary when we start talking about the way omniscience interacts with the other aspects of narration.

Types of Narrative Omniscience

When we’re talking about omniscience, we’re basically asking, “How much information does the narrator have while telling the story?” We’re looking to define exactly what our narrator can know about the story that they’re telling–and, like the rest of the narrative considerations, the key is to be consistent. Basically, you’re trying to avoid kicking the reader out of the story with unexpected information (or unexpectedly limited information). If you’ve got a first-person narrator talking about their workday hangups, it would be strange for that narrator to also know that their lover happens to be brushing their teeth halfway across the globe. (Unless, of course, your protagonist happens to be a minor deity.)

When talking about omniscience, there are essentially two kinds of knowledge that a narrator can have. The first question to ask is, “How much of the situation around the action of the scene can my narrator see?” I call this aspect of narrative omniscience scope or field of view. If you’re thinking about the narrator as a video camera, we’re essentially asking–how high up is this video camera? Can it see just the action the protagonist sees? Can it see the area around the protagonist? Or can it see Russia from its house…in Dallas, TX?

The second kind of knowledge a narrator may have is story-specific. The essential question here is: “How much does the narrator know about the way the story is going to end?” or “What does the narrator know of future events?” Another way to ask this question is: “Can my narrator tell the future?” If the answer is yes, asides like, “Little did they know that they would meet the dragon themselves, in due time,” are completely appropriate. If the answer is no–no prognostication for you, sad to say. It will break the flow of your narrative, and I will tell you to cut it.

A word of advice: this story-specific aspect of narration can be closely tied to narrative orientation in time–so be careful. Obviously, a first person narrator telling a story about themselves in the distant past will know how the story ultimately turned out. However, if the story catches up to the same narrator in the present, the narrator cannot know what will happen to them in the future. Their story-specific omniscience is limited to the past. Make sure you’re clear about why your narrator has the information that they do–are they truly omniscient, or is their information a result of their positioning in time?

These two aspects of narrative knowledge are not mutually exclusive–a narrator can only see the action from the perspective of the protagonist and also know exactly how the story ends from the outset of the telling, or a narrator can see what is happening the world over, but still have no knowledge of the outcome of the story. These aspects don’t interfere much with each other. Instead, they are most limited by your decisions about narrative perspective, as we will come to see.

Degrees of Narrative Omniscience

For both types of narrative knowledge, there are three “levels” of narrative omniscience. Your narrator can either have no omniscience, limited omniscience, or complete omniscience. Again, we’ll talk more about the perspective limitations on omniscience next week, but for now I want to address what each of these levels looks like in terms of scope and story-specific knowledge.

Naturally, the least amount of narrative omniscience is none. A narrator with no omniscience in regards to scope is limited to only what the main character in the scene can see with their own eyes. If someone is creeping up behind the protagonist, your narrator will not be aware of it until that person literally jumps out and scares the daylights out of them.

A narrator with no omniscience in regards to the future is limited to talking about things that are happening or have happened. Narrative asides are the most frequent offender for breaking this established perspective. You can’t allow your narrator, if they have no story-specific omniscience, to talk about how they would later dream of their crush just after talking about how they don’t know what they will have for dinner. Keep it consistent.

Complete omniscience is, predictably, the other side of this coin. A narrator with complete field-of-view omniscience is able to see everything that is happening over the scope of the story–think of large-scale, legend-type narration like The Silmarillion or other world-spanning epics. A narrator with access to the entire scope of the story can insert information into the narrative about things that are happening outside of any one character’s perception. Often, books with narrative omniscience in regards to scope feel legendary–the narrator has almost an overworldly quality because of their access to such broad amounts of information.

Something important to keep in mind here is that the combination of many limited perspectives does not equal true narrative omniscience. In a series like Game of Thrones, the narrator may seem omniscient, but in fact, each chapter is closely tied to a particular character. The combination of many limited perspectives feels omniscient, but a truly omniscient narrator will weave in information about the world outside of their current focus. A limited narrator cannot.

In the case of story-specific omniscience, the narrator will have complete information about the events of the story before they unfold. This is different from future narration because while the narrator may have the information, they may not share it–and the narration is not presented in the future tense. This kind of omniscience is often seen in narrative asides–the narrator will tell the reader bits and pieces about what is important or what is to come. A good example of this sort of narrative omniscience is A Series of Unfortunate Events. From the outset, it’s clear that the narrator, Lemony Snicket, knows the entire scope of the story, even though it has not yet unfolded.

The middle ground here is limited omniscience, which is a little more nuanced than either of the extremes. In terms of scope, a narrator with limited omniscience will be able to see around the main character in the scene. The narrator is considered to be limited in scope as long as they can see more than the individual character and less than everything, which is admittedly a pretty broad swatch.

Here’s an example: we have our main character, Joe, looking at a turtle in the middle of the road. If you have a narrator with no narrative omniscience, they can’t let the reader know that there happens to be a yeti tearing around the corner on a collision course with Joe–they can only tell you about how freaking awesome the turtle looks. A narrator with limited omniscience could tell you about the turtle and also clue the reader in about the yeti. A narrator with complete omniscience could also include an aside about why the yeti happens to be tearing around the corner of a residential neighborhood. Because we’re dealing with a limited narrator here, Joe will be forced to ask the yeti for that information himself–hopefully before he’s mowed down.

A limited narrator, as we mentioned before, can also identified by changes in focus. A narrator with no narrative omniscience is tied to the perceptions of a single character. A narrator with limited omniscience can pop from one character’s perspective to another. (Pro tip: If you decide to go this route, please divide perspective changes into sections or chapters.) This type of limited omniscience can be useful if you have several people’s stories that come together to form a whole.

In terms of story-specific knowledge, a limited narrator will know a bit more than what’s happening at the current moment, but they won’t have a full understanding of what’s to come. This is advantageous because you can give the reader a bit of perspective without introducing the distance that comes from already knowing how everything works out. When you have a narrator with some limited foresight, you have the ability to help the reader understand what’s actually important–and introduce a bit of tension.

For an example, let’s look again at Joe and the yeti. A narrator with no story-specific omniscience would provide only the events as they occur. A narrator with complete story-specific omniscience could make a sweeping acknowledgement that the happenstance meeting with the yeti would change Joe’s life forever. This would allow the reader to understand just how big of an event this yeti collision will be, but since they already know it’s important, there’s not much tension.  A narrator with limited story-specific omniscience, however, might comment on the fact that standing in the middle of the road probably wasn’t the safest idea–introducing the idea that something unsafe and important might be coming Joe’s way, while also contributing to an increase in tension. Win-win!

Finally, one last general consideration–your narrator is always defined by the highest level of omniscience, not the level that you spend the most time in. For example, if you have a narrator that presents as limited 95% of the time but occasionally shares information completely outside the scope of the current story, your narrator has complete story-scope  omniscience. It’s okay for a narrator to “pretend” to be less omniscient than they actually are–but it is never okay to move in the opposite direction. We’ll talk about this in more detail next week, but for now, just remember that your first-person, non-omniscient narrator cannot have flashes of inexplicable foresight.

Stay tuned! Next week we’ll look at the limitations on narrative omniscience presented by first-person and second-person narration. Woo!

A friendly reminder: while the editing giveaway is over (Congrats, Emily!), I’m still offering a discount on all of my editing services through the end of December with the super-secret password. For more details, check out the bottom of my guest post!

Comments

  1. This is something I struggled with greatly at first (not that it is completely cured now). I think you really hit the nail on the head when you said that your narrator is defined by the highest level used. When you said that to me privately, it changed the way I write. In fact, it has made subsequent writing easier.

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